HC Deb 24 March 2003 vol 402 cc21-35 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council, which I attended in Brussels on 20 and 21 March, and report also on the conflict in Iraq.

This meeting was the fourth of the special summits on economic reform in the European Union but, of course, the summit was dominated by Iraq. I should like to place on the record what I know will be the heartfelt gratitude of the entire House for the valour of British servicemen and women. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I send the deepest sympathy of the Government—and again, I hope, of the whole House—to the families of those who have died. They gave their lives for our safety. They had the courage to lake the ultimate risk in the service of their country, and of those who value freedom everywhere in the world. We owe them an immense debt. I would like also to extend my condolences, and those of our nation, to the families of the American personnel who have sadly been lost in recent days.

We are now just four days into this conflict. It is worth restating our central objectives. They are to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and to ensure that Iraq is disarmed of all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes, but in achieving these objectives we have also embraced other considerations. We want to carry out this campaign in a way that minimises the suffering of ordinary Iraqi people, brutalised by Saddam; to safeguard the wealth of the country for the future prosperity of the people; and to make this a war not of conquest, but of liberation. For this reason, we did not, as some expected, mount a heavy bombing campaign first, followed by a land campaign. Instead, land forces were immediately in action, securing oil installations and gaining strategic assets and retaining them, not destroying them. The air campaign has been precisely targeted. Of course, there will have been civilian casualties, but we have done all that we humanly can to keep them to a minimum. Water and electricity supplies are being spared. The targets are the infrastructure, command and control of Saddam's regime, not of the civilian population. We are making massive efforts to clear lines of supply for humanitarian aid, although the presence of mines is hindering us.

By contrast, the nature of Saddam's regime is all too plainly expressed in its actions. The oil wealth was mined, and deep-mined at that. Had we not struck quickly, Iraq's future wealth would even now be burning away. Prisoners are being paraded in defiance of all international conventions. Those who dare speak criticism of the regime are being executed.

Now let me now give the House some detail, if I may, of the military campaign. In the south, our aim was to secure the key oil installations on the al-Faw peninsula; to take the port of Umm Qasr, the only Iraqi port to the outside world; and to render Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, ineffective as a basis for military operations by Saddam against coalition troops. In the west, in the desert, our aim is to prevent Saddam from using it as a base for hostile external aggression. In the north, our objective is to protect people in the Kurdish autonomous zone, to secure the northern oil fields, and to ensure that the north cannot provide a base for Saddam's resistance. Then, of course, the vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus bringing the end of the regime closer.

I hope that the House will understand that there is a limit to how much I can say about the detail of our operations, especially those involving special forces, but with that caveat, at present British and US troops have taken the al-Faw peninsula; that is now secure. The southern oil installations are under coalition control. The port of Umm. Qasr, despite continuing pockets of resistance, is under allied control, but the waterway essential for humanitarian aid may be blocked by mines and will take sonic days to sweep. Basra is surrounded and cannot be used as an Iraqi base, but in Basra there are pockets of Saddam's most fiercely loyal security services, who are holding out. They are contained but still able to inflict casualties on our troops, so we are proceeding with caution. Basra international airport has been made secure. The western desert is largely secure. In the north, there have been air attacks on regime targets in Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit. We have been in constant contact with the Turkish Government and the Kurdish authorities to urge calm.

Meanwhile, coalition forces led by the American 5th Corps are on the way to Baghdad. As we speak, they are about 60 miles south of Baghdad, near Karbala. A little way from there they will encounter the Medina division of the republican guard, which is defending the route to Baghdad. That will plainly be a crucial moment. Coalition forces are also advancing on al-Kut, in the east of Iraq. The two main bridges over the Euphrates south of Baghdad have been taken intact. That is of critical significance.

The air campaign has attacked Iraqi military installations, the centres of Saddam's regime and command and control centres. More than 5,000 sorties have taken place, thousands of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered and still more have simply left the field, their units disintegrating. But there are those, closest to Saddam, who are resisting and will resist strongly. They are the elite who are hated by the local population and have little to lose. There are bound, therefore, to be difficult days ahead, but the strategy and its timing are proceeding according to plan.

At the European Council, there were, of course, deep divisions over the coalition action. That is well known—but it is not that all of European opinion is one way. On the contrary, there was both understanding and support for the British position from many nations represented at the Council and near unanimous endorsement from the 10 accession countries which joined our Council on Friday afternoon. In any event, whatever the disagreements about the conflict itself, Europe came together to set out clearly its wishes and responsibilities in post-conflict Iraq.

The Council agreed the need to be active in the humanitarian field, to ensure that the oil revenues are held for the Iraqi people by the United Nations and to ensure that the oil-for-food programme continues. The Council further agreed that the UN Security Council should give the UN a strong mandate for post-conflict Iraq and make sure that the new Administration is one that is representative, careful of the human rights of the Iraqi people and allows the people to live at peace inside Iraq and with their neighbours.

In addition, the Council stressed the vital importance of the middle east peace process and the publication of the road map drawn up by the US, EU, Russia and the UN, and now endorsed by us all. I reported on the talks that we had had both with the US Administration and the Palestinian Authority. We welcomed the appointment of Abu Mazen as Palestinian Prime Minister. I also welcomed the US intention to publish the road map for peace as soon as the Prime Minister and his Government are in place.

I know that it seems somewhat incongruous and out of place, but I should say one word on the conventional subject matter of the summit. Although overshadowed by Iraq, this summit on economic reform regained some momentum. In the last few months, energy liberalisation, a single Europe-wide patent and a single Europe sky policy have all been agreed. An employment taskforce, due to report on ways to cut unemployment without generating new regulation, was also agreed. That marks progress, though much remains to be done.

To return to the conflict, there are, of course, difficulties that have arisen, tragedies and accidents. We grieve for the lives lost. That is in the nature of war. And it is in the nature of today's instant, live reporting of war, that people see the pain and blood in vivid and shocking terms. However, it is worth recalling the nature of what is not always apparent and what we do not see: an Iraqi nation, degraded and brutalised by decades of barbarous rule; a country that is potentially rich but whose people go hungry and whose children die needlessly from malnutrition and disease; and a regime for which repression, torture, the abuse of human rights and possession of weapons of mass destruction define its very nature. That is why we must achieve our objectives. Saddam will go and this regime will be replaced. The Iraqi people will be helped to a better future. The weapons of mass destruction—for which a peaceful Iraq has no use—will be eliminated. That we will encounter more difficulties and anxious moments in the days ahead is certain. But no less certain, indeed more so, is coalition victory.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the brave servicemen who have lost their lives, to their families who now mourn, and to those who continue to put their lives at risk. I also send my condolences to the families of the journalists who have also lost their loved ones. I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the US servicemen who have put their lives at risk and whose families, in many cases, now wonder about their future.

I thank the Prime Minister for his words about the road map, and for the importance that he places on assessing and addressing the matter. As he has said on a number of occasions, it holds the key to future stability in that region.

The war was never going to be easy, but the cause, I believe, is just. Despite the tragic losses of individual lives and the resistance that has been encountered, I agree that we must keep sight of the bigger picture. The pace of the advance towards Baghdad has been rapid. The capture and preservation of the oil wells has been a notable success, and the seizure of the bridges intact has been vital. The objectives, as the Prime Minister says, remain the same. However, there remain a number of questions.

What assessment has the Prime Minister made of the impact that the campaign has had on the cohesion of the Iraqi regime? In particular, given Saddam Hussein's television broadcast and some questions about whether that was live or recorded, what is the latest assessment of Saddam Hussein, his sons and the regional commanders in Iraq? In terms of strategy, can the Prime Minister confirm that the coalition is continuing to isolate towns to protect the civilian population, and that there is no change? Specifically, with reference to Basra, there are serious concerns about the shortages of water and electricity in the city. What steps does he believe can be taken to put that right?

The treatment of coalition prisoners of war was degrading and a clear breach of the Geneva convention. That gross spectacle yet again shows the nature of Saddam's regime and must be considered a war crime. Will the Prime Minister reassure the House and the British people that the perpetrators will be brought to justice? Is it not vital that in our treatment of prisoners of war, we continue to show that we have come to free the people of Iraq, not to conquer them?

There is continued concern at the talk of Turkish troop movements in northern Iraq. The situation is extremely delicate, I am aware, and there are reports that the Iraqi Kurds are diverting forces towards the Turkish border. Does the Prime Minister agree that a major Turkish incursion into northern Iraq would be wholly unacceptable? What assurances has he sought and received from the Turkish authorities that that will not happen? Is there any prospect of Turkish forces being placed under coalition command?

On the humanitarian crisis, can the Prime Minister tell the House how soon aid can be deployed in Iraq and who will be in charge of the delivery of that aid? Will he also confirm that in the early stages of delivery, the armed forces' participation is essential? Perhaps he can confirm that HMS Sir Galahad is standing by with large amounts of humanitarian aid for delivery as soon as the port of Umm Qasr is cleared. The House should note that the more successful operation has been carried out by American troops under British command.

At a time of heightened concern about national security, the Prime Minister will be aware that there is currently no Minister of State at the Home Office with responsibility for security services and home defence. When will he replace the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham)? At this vital time, when will the new ambassador to Washington officially take up his post?

The Prime Minister referred to the European Council. I have one question. Does he now accept the need to reassess fundamentally the concept of a common foreign and security policy? Surely now is the time for a new Europe rooted in its nation states, not the deeper and deeper process in which we are engaged.

The days ahead may well be difficult. The Prime Minister assured us that our objectives remain clear: ridding Iraq completely of weapons of mass destruction and the end of Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime. Our forces out there will carry out tasks that we know will place them in great danger, and I have no doubt that they will carry them out with efficiency, bravery and success. For our part, it is essential that we send our forces the clearest message that they have our unflagging support.

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his general message; obviously, I am in agreement with him and thank him for his support at this difficult time. I should like to express my own condolences to the family of Terry Lloyd, and to those of the others who lost their lives. Terry Lloyd was a brave and distinguished correspondent. Such people run considerable risks in trying to inform the outside world of what is happening.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, obviously, about the road map. In respect of questions about Saddam and leading members of the regime, the truthful position is that we cannot be sure whether the broadcasts were pre-recorded. Some of them appear to be dated, but there is not an exact science in this. At the present time, we simply do not know for certain.

As a result of the arrangements that are being made by Red Crescent and help from British engineers, we should get back 40 per cent. of the water supplies in Basra by Sunday—within the next few days, at any rate. We are certainly doing everything that we can to protect the essential infrastructure while, obviously, attacking the regime's command and control centres.

In relation to Turkey, any incursion would be entirely unacceptable. That has been made very clear to the Turkish Government and military. I believe that they have understood those messages, which have been given not just by ourselves but by the United States of America. Of course, there are no Turkish troops under coalition command.

The provision of humanitarian aid depends in part on how soon we can clear the waterway. The right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that HMS Sir Galahad is standing by. It has a very large amount of humanitarian aid and provision on board. I very much hope that in the next few days we will be able to achieve that, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will say some more about that in a moment, following her talks in Washington.

The Home Secretary has taken personal charge of home security. The person who is to be the new US ambassador is presently my adviser, so I would prefer him not to take up that post immediately, if that is all right. I have a lot of use for him here.

I am afraid that the one point on which the right hon. Gentleman and I will disagree is the European common foreign and security policy. What he really means when he says that we should re-evaluate it is that we should get rid of it. That would not be wise. In any event, if Britain opted out of the policy that would not get rid of it. It would just go forward without British participation. We can return to the argument in later and more peaceful times, but I register it as at least one point of disagreement.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I extend our deepest sympathies to the families of the service personnel and of journalists who have lost their lives. They were courageous people carrying out their tasks in the most extremely difficult circumstances in a war zone. Let us hope that service personnel who are missing will be found safely and be able to return home in due course.

We on these Benches last week voted against this war, but we have to accept the democratic decision of the House. What everybody in the country surely wants is a minimum amount of casualties—first and foremost among our own service personnel, but equally among innocent Iraqi civilians with whom, as a country, we have never had any quarrel, and who have suffered so much under the totalitarian regime that is Saddam Hussein and his cohorts.

The Government said from the outset that the humanitarian aims of the mission are as important as the military ones. Therefore, equally urgent thought needs to be given to the task of reconstruction once the immediate hostilities are over. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to gain the confidence of the Iraqi people and of the region is for the United Nations to take overall responsibility for that reconstruction course? By entrusting the reconstruction of Iraq to the UN, does he agree that we would have the opportunity to begin the reconstruction of the international order, which has suffered so much damage diplomatically in recent weeks, and of the European Union, to which he referred in his statement?

May I ask the Prime Minister some specific questions? First, it is clear that the confidence of our air crews depends on the knowledge that awful mistakes such as those that led to the shooting down of the RAF Tornado have been rectified. Can the Prime Minister say more about the steps that are in hand to prevent that from happening?

Secondly, has there been any recognition at all from the Iraqi regime—probably not—that its behaviour towards prisoners of war is in flagrant disregard of the Geneva convention and is utterly unacceptable on the international stage?

On the humanitarian aspects of the crisis, within the past hour Kofi Annan described the position in Basra as being on the verge of "a humanitarian disaster". What further steps can we take at this point to help to alleviate the plight of the citizens in that city and to enable coalition forces to deliver the humanitarian aid that is so urgently needed?

We all hope that this conflict will be concluded as swiftly and as successfully as possible, but if we are to win the peace we must repair the damage not only to the infrastructure of Iraq, but to the international order, by which we mean the Legitimacy of the United Nations.

The Prime Minister

First, I should correct one piece of information that I gave earlier, which is relevant to the questions put by the right hon. Gentleman. In fact, 40 per cent. of the water in Basra was reconnected yesterday—last Sunday. We are working on making sure that the rest is reconnected over the coming days. Obviously, we shall get the humanitarian aid in as quickly as we possibly can, but there is a problem because apparently the waterways are mined.

In relation to casualties, as I said, we are doing our level best to minimise civilian casualties. One reason is that it is important that we make it clear to the Iraqi people that our quarrel is not with them—it is with the regime of Saddam. To a far greater extent than in any previous conflict, we have tried to make sure that the targets are carefully chosen and that we do everything that we possibly can—consistent, obviously, with achieving our military objectives—to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. These words are obvious, but it is necessary to utter them: any claims made by the Iraqi authorities should be treated with some scepticism.

In relation to reconstruction, of course we want it to be authorised by the United Nations. Let me emphasise again that when we talk of reconstruction we mean the reconstruction of the country following Saddam, not reconstruction to do with allied war campaigns. That reconstruction—that rebuilding of Iraq—will be a lot easier if it has proper United Nations authority. I hope very much that people can come together and make the system work. That will be an important part of bringing the international community back together at the end of this.

In relation to combat ID and the issues raised about the tragic shooting down of the RAF Tornado plane, there have been significant improvements but we are looking urgently at the lessons we can learn from that incident. As for the Geneva convention and the way that the American prisoners of war were paraded, that is, I am afraid, typical of Saddam's regime. It is a very good reminder of why it is important for Iraq and for the wider world that the regime is removed.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

Our condolences go to the families and friends of those in our own forces and others who have died in this conflict to secure a peaceful Iraq. My right hon. Friend spoke of the European Council coming together to look at post-conflict Iraq, but what assurance has he received that the United Nations will indeed be in charge of the humanitarian aspects after the conflict, and that the road towards democracy for Iraq will be achieved through and with UN support?

The Prime Minister

Those were indeed the commitments that the European Council made—that we should ensure that the UN is involved not only on the humanitarian side, but in the authority that succeeds Saddam's regime in Iraq. Of course, it will be easier if Europe comes together and works together on that. It is very important, if we want to get that United Nations resolution—as we do—that whatever differences there have been over the conflict itself are set aside in the interests of ensuring that the United Nations is fully involved in the post-conflict situation in Iraq, and that that develops in a way that has the support not only, obviously, of the coalition forces and of the Iraqi people, but of the wider international community.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

The Prime Minister has already referred to the tragic deaths over the weekend of the pilot and navigator of the Tornado from RAF Marham in my constituency, and the House will certainly want to echo his sympathy for their families. I am sure that he can imagine the sense of shock at the idea that some kind of technological failure caused the Tornado to be hit by friendly fire in the form of a Patriot missile. If it was a technological failure, that is clearly an enormously serious matter. The Prime Minister may well not be able to comment in any more detail than he already has about what is being done to look into that, but if he could it would give a great deal of reassurance to people in the RAF and in the wider community.

The Prime Minister

I again express my condolences to the right hon. Lady's constituents for their tragic loss. The planes have of course been fitted with the latest combat ID equipment—that is important. We are, however, looking to see what lessons can be learned, because something has gone wrong and we must make sure that it does not happen again. That gives rise to issues not only on our side, but on the American side. We are looking at the matter urgently, and I assure the right hon. Lady and her constituents that the moment that we have something precise and accurate to say to people about it, we will say it first to them, then tell the wider world.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this action is not about giving the US a footprint in the middle east, but about getting a better Iraq, a safer Britain and a safer world?

The Prime Minister

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that those are indeed the objectives.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I thank the Prime Minister very warmly for his fitting tribute to my constituent, Terry Lloyd, which I know will be greatly appreciated by his widow, Lynn, and their children, Chelsey and Oliver. Given his outstanding work over two decades in Halabja, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Lebanon and Northern Ireland, which displayed in each case a combination of extreme professionalism and personal courage, Does the Prime Minister agree that Terry Lloyd was a credit to his family, to his profession and to his country, and that his loss will be mourned by decent people everywhere?

The Prime Minister

Again, I agree entirely with that. I extend my condolences to Terry Lloyd's family in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. He was someone of huge experience in such situations who reported with very great bravery and distinction. His loss will be felt not only in this country, but throughout the world, because he was immensely respected in many different parts of the world.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I echo what was said about Terry Lloyd. I, too, knew him; we met in various parts of the world at various times. He was a very good reporter and a very brave one. I am very sorry for everybody who died this weekend, irrespective of whether—in the words of the Oscar winner at the weekend—they believed in God or in Allah. We all hope for a speedy resolution and a peaceful Iraq in future.

This morning, I was phoned by an Iraqi friend who lives in this country and has relatives living in Baghdad. She said that she gets very annoyed with hearing commentators say, "Everybody expected the Allied troops to be cheered when they arrived." She said, "How can you cheer when you've got a republican guard living in your house?" There has to be a sense of reality in that respect.

The Prime Minister

What my hon. Friend says on this subject is, as ever, extremely wise. Many of the local population still live in a great deal of fear from Saddam's security services. Let us be honest: because of the history of the past 12 years, they cannot yet be sure in their own minds that we mean what we say. We do indeed mean what we say. We will remove Saddam from power and liberate the country. However, given the history, it is hardly surprising if people are very circumspect about showing their feelings about the regime until that regime has actually gone.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the Prime Minister agree that, given the Americans' difficulties in getting the 4th Mechanised Division in through Turkey, the contribution of British forces is even more significant than it otherwise would have been? Will he extend to the coalition forces the congratulations of the whole House on the remarkable speed with which they have pressed ahead in the north? It has been a military as well as a logistical miracle thus far. Will he assure the House that necessary reserves have been stood up in case they should be required?

The Prime Minister

I can confirm all of that. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on the importance of the British forces—particularly after what has happened in Turkey—and on the remarkable advance of, I think, some 280 miles inside the country. It is astonishing that they have done that in just a few days. Of course, we will ensure that the proper reserves are in place.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

This morning, I spoke to a worried mother whose son is currently serving in the Gulf. She spoke of her anger and dismay when, this morning, in trying to send a package to her son, she was charged nearly £16. Ten years ago, when she did the same for an elder son, the service was free. Will the Prime Minister assure me that he will consider the pricing policy to ensure that mothers, daughters, wives and husbands across the country can send welfare packages free of charge to service personnel?

The Prime Minister

The Defence Secretary has just told me that we are trying to put arrangements in place to allow that to happen. I will look into the matter and discuss it with my right hon. Friend. We will try to ensure that arrangements are in place as soon as possible.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, may I associate myself fully and sincerely with what the Prime Minister has said in tribute and in condolence? It has been encouraging to hear the Prime Minister mention three times the need to protect the Kurdish community to the north of Iraq. I urge him to consider a federal system for post-conflict Iraq, to protect those boundaries and those people.

The Prime Minister

The precise nature of any Government for the whole of Iraq will have to be considered carefully at a later time. The Kurdish community in the north, because it has been protected by British and American pilots over the past 12 years, has achieved a remarkable degree of autonomy. It has achieved at least something of the beginnings of democracy. As a result of that, and as a result of the way that the area is governed free from Saddam, that community actually has a far better record on things such as the poverty of its people, the building of schools and hospitals, and the reduction of child mortality. We must ensure that we retain the gains that have been made by that community. However, as I say, the precise nature of the government of Iraq will be a matter for discussion at a later point.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I deeply regret all the loss of life and all the injuries that have been caused over the past five days. Has the Prime Minister studied the footage from al-Jazeera, which went in to report on the 50 or so civilians who were killed in Basra after the bombing or shelling? There were terrible pictures of women and children—one child with half its head blown out. Just before I came into the Chamber, I heard a report on the radio that we are shelling Basra yet again. How does the Prime Minister think that we can protect civilians when that kind of thing is happening?

The Prime Minister

First, let me say to my hon. Friend that we regret any loss of civilian life in Iraq. I think that most people would agree that we have done everything that we can in the targeting to ensure that we minimise the dangers of that. However, of course, there will be innocent civilians who die in any war; that is why we have struggled so long to ensure that Saddam disarmed peacefully.

Although the pictures are not as vivid and not as shocking, the fact is that people have been dying the entire time in Iraq under Saddam. We will do everything that we can to make this conflict as swift as possible and to minimise civilian casualties. As I say, every civilian casualty is one that we regret. However, we are doing all that we humanly can to keep them to a minimum.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

I welcome what the Prime Minister said in answer to an earlier question about the adequacy of reserves, but does he agree that the length of the supply line makes the coalition forces very vulnerable to ambush and other guerrilla forms of insurgency, and that may well extend to service personnel engaged in delivering humanitarian aid along those supply lines in future? Will he assure the House that he is satisfied that not only the British reinforcement position but the American reinforcement position can ensure that those crucial long supply lines are fully protected, possibly for an extended period?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the length of the supply line. All I can say to him—without going into detail because that would not be sensible—is that the issue of force protection is one that we visit and revisit constantly with the military commanders, and I am satisfied that they are doing everything that they can to ensure that those lines of supply are secure.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on the de- mining of Umm Qasr? Is it the case that that work cannot start yet because there are still pockets of resistance; or is it the intention to start that work very soon? Obviously, the sooner it starts, the sooner we can begin to deliver our promise on humanitarian relief.

The Prime Minister

As I understand it, the position is really this: it is not the pockets of resistance, which are fairly limited now in Umm Qasr; it is more to do with the fact that there is the prospect of mines being in the waterways approaching the port. We cannot be sure exactly how many are there at the moment. That is what we are investigating, and at this stage—obviously, before we see what we are up against—we cannot give a definitive time, but we hope that we will be able to get the humanitarian aid moving in the next few days.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Although we clearly have to wait a little longer to decide Iraq's long-term future—I hope, with the UN's involvement—would it not help to gain greater international acceptance of our actions and encourage the Iraqi people to surrender wherever possible if the Prime Minister were a bit more specific about what he sees immediately after the war? It is difficult to believe that he has not already carefully considered who should be part of any interim Administration, representing Iraqi exiles and people presently in Iraq, so could he not tell the House a little more about how he envisages Iraq being governed for the first few weeks and months while a new constitution and Government are put in place?

The Prime Minister

Obviously, we have to be careful of being too specific on that—otherwise it renders somewhat nugatory the discussion that we will have in the UN about exactly what the form of government should be—but we can lay down certain principles very clearly. It should be as representative as possible; it should move Iraq along the road to democracy as much as possible, given the history and the circumstances; it should protect human rights; and it should protect Iraq's territorial integrity. At this stage, before we have discussions with the UN and other allies, I cannot be more specific than that, but. I believe that most people in Iraq can see the basis of how Iraq could be governed differently, and they can do so not least because, in the northern part—protected, as I say, by British and American pilots—a different Iraq has already taken shape.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Although I am very clear on the need for this action, may I put on record my strong opposition to the use of cluster bombs, as experience suggests that they are contrary to our stated aim of causing the minimum possible civilian casualties? If the Prime Minister raises that inconsistency with the President, could he also diplomatically point out that if the Americans were not so flagrantly breaching the rights of prisoners of war captured in Afghanistan, their current justified outrage for our own POWs would be less inconsistent and more effective in securing their safe return?

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, the people at Guantanamo bay are not combat troops in the service of a country. However, I have said on many occasions before that there will have to come a point when the situation at Guantanamo bay comes to an end, although it is also true to say that information is still being provided by people there that is of importance.

In relation to cluster bombs, I will not comment on what munitions we may use, except to say that I am personally satisfied that whatever munitions we are using are in accordance with international law.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I commend the Prime Minister on not only his brave and courageous action, but his statement this afternoon? Will he confirm whether it is true, as has been claimed in a number of tabloid newspapers, that a chemical plant has been discovered by coalition forces? Secondly, will he confirm whether Turkish troops have entered Iraq from the north? If he can do so, I am sure that a great many people will be reassured.

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, we have no reports of that in respect of Turkish troops. In respect of the chemical plant, that is still being investigated. As soon as we have news on that, we will state it.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Millions of people at the weekend will have heard Donald Rumsfeld opine: We are not bombing Baghdad". I therefore ask the Prime Minister: who is? Are we?

The Prime Minister

I think that people know that the campaign that we have conducted has of course included targets in Baghdad, but they have been targets designed to weaken the regime, not destroy centres of the Iraqi population.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

The Prime Minister rightly drew attention to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces. In particular, I want to draw his attention to 16 Air Assault Brigade, the 3,000 troops from the Colchester garrison who are currently in the Gulf. He has also drawn attention to the concerns, anxieties and worries that wives and other dependants have back home. May I offer an invitation to him to visit Colchester garrison for a two-way exchange with families so that he can reassure them and benefit from their response, too? I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for Defence for the briefing that he has just given.

The Prime Minister

First, of course I admire and applaud the work that the hon. Gentleman's constituents and others from that garrison are doing. I cannot give any commitments as to when I may visit, but I understand that the Secretary of State for Defence is due to visit next week.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Now that the international rule of law has been replaced by the law of the jungle, can the Prime Minister tell the House whether, when he met President Chirac at the European Council, he told him that most of the British people dissociate themselves from the xenophobic insults that have been hurled at France by some of his Ministers in recent weeks?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, I have a certain fondness for France, so I would not join in any of those insults either in relation to France or the French people. He mentioned the law of the jungle: if he wants an example of the law of the jungle, he should look at the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Many of those who opposed war, including me, were worried about inflaming Arab nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism. There was always a concern that such people would hole themselves up in towns and cause enormous difficulties to our troops. Indeed, that appears to be happening in Umm Qasr, a town of only 4,000 people, whereas Baghdad has millions. What is the Prime Minister's strategy? Will he be fair and honest with the British people and warn them that while we all hope that this regime will haul up the white flag, a long war of attrition is possible? We cannot defeat this regime by staying on the outskirts of the cities or by staying in the desert. We must go into the centres. It may be wiser to warn the British people now that if we are to win the war, we must do that.

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that we are about four days into the conflict at present, and I think that the progress of the troops has been remarkable, despite the tragedies and the accidents that necessarily happen in such a situation. As for inflaming Arab nations, I repeat what I have often said on this subject: I do not believe that the Arab nations will be inflamed by the removal of Saddam; I do, however, believe that they will be hugely encouraged by our even-handedness if they see us proceed genuinely with the middle east peace process.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage)

Can my right hon. Friend say how long he thinks it will be before the much-needed road map to peace is published? Is it a matter of days or weeks?

The Prime Minister

I very much hope that it is a matter of days, but it depends on the new Palestinian Prime Minister appointing his Cabinet, which will take him some time. As soon as that is ready, the road map will be given to him—that is the commitment of the President of the United States and myself, and is indeed what he himself wants.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

Would the Prime Minister dissociate himself from the anti-French rhetoric that has been coming out of his Government in recent weeks? Does he recognise that, although he and the Government may disapprove of French foreign policy, the French have a perfect right to take a different view of the world? Will he instead reserve his condemnation for those who have written or drafted the European constitution, which seeks to impose a single foreign and security policy on all member states who shall actively and unreservedly support it in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity. That is not a harmless fantasy—it will attempt to impose binding obligations on the Government and the House, contrary to our interests.

The Prime Minister

First, I can respond to the right hon. Gentleman's stout defence of French policy, or at least their right to have a policy. I entirely agree—of course, the French are entitled to have a point of view different from ours, but we are entitled to point out why we were unable-to secure a second United Nations resolution. On the common foreign and security policy, I do not agree, for the reasons that I gave earlier. I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, as a result of the agreement that we secured, there is no question of British forces being committed in any European defence effort without the express permission in each individual instance of the British Government.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Turning to the European Council, clearly, the European Union agenda is much wider than Iraq. Does my right hon. Friend have any fears that the divisions and bitterness on Iraq will spill over and sour areas in which we have considerable interest, such as the Balkans, and asylum and immigration? Does he have any fears, for example, that the French will be less than helpful in respect of a new UN Security Council resolution on reconstruction?

The Prime Minister

I hope, first, that everyone accepts that it is good for the United Nations to be involved in a post-conflict Iraq, so I hope that the difficulties to which my right hon. Friend drew attention will not arise. Secondly, I very much hope that the disagreements here do not in any shape or form contaminate other areas of policy. It is interesting, for example, that we have agreed the European defence mission in Macedonia, which will go ahead as planned. There are real and important issues that will have to be resolved at the end of this, primarily to do with the relationship between Europe and the United States of America. It is right that we have that debate—I do not think that there is any point in masking or hiding the divisions, and it may be time after this to try to sit down and resolve them sensibly.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the air of sadness mixed with pride in the west country over the weekend at the tragic news of the loss of so many Plymouth-based Royal Marines, closely followed by the loss of helicopter pilots from nearby RAF Culdrose. Does he agree that the famous green berets have already played a significant part in the liberation of the Iraqi people, and will he send a personal message and tribute to the families of armed forces in the west country, many of whom are grieving for the loss of their husbands?

The Prime Minister

The west country has often provided some of our finest forces, and of course I send my deepest condolences to the families of servicemen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency who have lost their lives. I hope that they realise that they gave their lives in a just cause, which is important not just for British security but for the safety and security of the world. I am sure that in time we will remember them as people who gave their lives in that way with immense courage.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

What are the implications of Saddam Hussein's decision to use civilians as a human shield in the course of this war?

The Prime Minister

There is no doubt at all that Saddam Hussein will try to do so, as he did in the last Gulf war, which is one reason why it is important that we are careful with the targeting of the air campaign. However, there is a constant risk because there is no doubt at all that there is evidence that where he has troop movements, he will try to surround them in areas of civilian sensitivity. As we have reflected many times before, there are no lengths to which he will not go.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Can the Prime Minister be a little more specific about his discussions with his EU partners at the European Council this weekend? Considering that a quarter of all our overseas aid more than —700 million—goes to the aid budget in the European Union, surely the British taxpayers who have paid that money would expect Britain to make a really good contribution through Europe to the reconstruction of Iraq after the war.

The Prime Minister

Well, we will do so on our own behalf and also in the European Union. That is why it is important that we work together with the other European countries to get a new UN resolution both on the humanitarian front and elsewhere. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is fair to say that many countries were speaking in our support at the European Council; indeed, virtually all the accession countries did so.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

Coalition forces are clearly doing everything in their power to minimise the number of civilian casualties, but we hear stories of non-uniformed armed Iraqis attacking British troops. Does the Prime Minister believe that this is a case of ordinary Iraqis arming themselves or, as seems far more likely, of cowardly Iraqi troops deliberately masquerading as civilians?

The Prime Minister

It is certainly the latter, as far as we can make out. My hon. Friend is right; these people will be fiercely loyal to the regime, as they will have suppressed the local population. They are armed at the present time and we will do all we can to root them out. Where those pockets of resistance are taking place, they come from the Fedayeen and people who are fiercely loyal to the regime. That is only to be expected, as they are the people, not the Iraqi people or the ordinary Iraqi soldiers, who have most to lose from the departure of Saddam's regime.